The Ganges River
About the Photo
Hindu woman bathing in the Ganges River
Explore the Topic
A Hindu woman bathes in the waters of the Ganges River. She is dressed in a cotton sari and her forehead is adorned with the traditional Hindu markings, the bindi and sindoor. For the 80% of Indians who are Hindus, the Ganges is considered sacred, the terrestrial home of the goddess Ganga, and has held a vaunted place within the faith for centuries. Hindus from all over the subcontinent make annual pilgrimages to the many temples and shrines located along its shores and believe it is auspicious to drink, bathe, and, after death, have their ashes scattered in the river. Bathing in the Ganges is a purifying ritual that is thought to wash away a penitent's sins, and spreading one's ashes in the water upon death may improve one's karma and hasten salvation.
India's longest river, the Ganges flows eastward from its source in the snow-capped western Himalayas across the plains of northern India until it empties into the Bay of Bengal. During its 1,554 mile journey, the Ganges passes through the Indian states of Uttarakhand, home to the sacred city of Haridwar; Uttar Pradesh, where the holy cities of Allahabad and Varanasi (Benares) are located; Bihar; and Bengal, home to India's cultural capital, Calcutta (Kolkata). The Ganges plain has been the birthplace of several empires, including the Gupta Empire.
Practiced primarily in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, Hinduism is considered the world's oldest religion, with traditions originating in and before the Neolithic era, around 8,000 years ago. Hinduism may have had its beginnings in the Indus River Valley in modern Pakistan, and the word hindu comes from the Persian name for that river.
A heterogeneous philosophy, Hinduism has no one founder and includes many sacred texts, the most ancient being the Vedas. Among the variety of genres included in the Vedic texts, composed 1500 – 1100 BCE, are hymns to gods, descriptions of rituals and philosophical writings. Commentaries on the Vedic books, written between 800 and 100 BCE, discuss the transcendent principal of Brahman, the source of the universe. Also influential are the great epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana written between 500 BCE and 200 CE. Among these epics, the Bhagavad Gita describes the central idea of moksha, or liberation of the soul from the cycle of perpetual death and rebirth. The primary principle of karma determines the character of the soul in this cycle.
Although Hinduism contains elements of polytheism, monotheism and monism, all gods within Hinduism are today considered manifestations of Brahman. Many Hindus practice devotion to one of three main deities: Brahma, the creator of the cosmos; Vishnu, preserver of the cosmos; and Shiva, destroyer of the cosmos.
In Hinduism, the nature of the universe and the structure of society are closely linked. Brahman is the ultimate reality and also the name given to the highest (priestly) caste. The concept of dharma describes both cosmic law and the conduct of individuals in society, including adherence to the social order. Castes in orthodox Hindu society distinguished among people of priestly, military, merchant, peasant, and untouchable (individuals with no social standing) castes—now known as dalits and the focus of positive discrimination legislation and job quotas in today's democratic India.
Approximately 80% of India's population today practices Hinduism.
India's most revered river, the Ganges, or Ganga, is formed by the merging of two mountain streams, the Bhagirathi, which is fed by the melting of the Gangotri glacier, and the Alaknanda, at the village of Deoprayag in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Ganges flows parallel to, but several hundred miles south of, the Himalayas as it crosses northern India on its route east to the Bay of Bengal. Its tributaries bring down sediment-filled water from the mountains, which help create a wide, fertile plain that provides food and sustenance for nearly a billion people.
The river has played a vital role in the growth of the civilizations that developed along its shores, not only in terms of agriculture but commerce as well, and been worshipped by Hindus since ancient times. According to Hindu mythology, the Ganges is a goddess, Ganga, who dwelled in the heavens until a human king, Bhagiratha, prayed to the god Brahma to have her descend to Earth. Bhagiratha made this request in order to help cleanse and release the souls of his ancestors who had been burnt to death and condemned to wander in the nether-world. Although Brahma granted Bhagiratha's wish, Ganga was displeased and threatened to descend with such force that it would destroy the Earth. Bhagiratha then prayed to the god Shiva, who caught Ganga in his hair and released her in small streams to the Earth.
A daily garment worn by women throughout India, the sari, also spelled saree, is a single piece of seamless cloth that is five to nine yards long and draped around the body. Thought to be in use in the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years, the sari can be wrapped in numerous ways, depending on the region, social class, and ethnic background of the wearer. Today, the Nivi style, which began to be widely adopted in the mid-20th century, is the most popular.
Woven on both hand and power looms, saris are made of cotton, silk, and synthetic fibers and commonly worn with two foundational garments: the pavada, a thin, cotton petticoat that extends to the ankles and is secured at the waist with a drawstring and a tailored short-sleeve or sleeveless blouse that is fitted and covers the bosom. In the Nivi style, most of the cloth is wrapped around the lower part of the body and pleated and tucked into the pavada at the center of the waist. The remaining material is then draped across the blouse, either loosely or tightly with pleats, and falls over the left shoulder. The portion that hangs from the shoulder is called the pallu and is often the most highly decorated element of the garment, picking up on the motifs found on the sari's border and body.
The bindi is an ornamental mark on the forehead, placed between the two eyebrows, worn by Hindu women. It is known as a pottu in Tamil, a bottu in Malayalam, and a tikli in Marathi. Traditionally, the red bindi was worn solely by Hindu women as a marker of their marital status. The round, red dot was created by applying a dab of kumkum, or vermillion powder, over a sticky wax paste with the tip of the forefinger. The circular black bindi, more commonly sported by young girls, particularly in southern India, was made with a kohl pencil.
Today, the bindi has evolved from a propitious symbol of marriage into a decorative element that is worn by girls and women throughout South Asia and can vary in size, shape, material, and color. Application has been simplified with the creation of the self-adhesive, disposable bindi made of felt or thin metal with glue on one side that allows it to easily stick to the forehead. Women can match the bindi to their dress and enhance their appearance even further by donning the highly embellished bindis that feature sequins, beads, and sparkling stones.
Although preceded by two Guptan rulers, Chandragupta I (reign 320-335 CE) is credited with establishing the Gupta Empire in the Ganges River valley in about 320 CE, when he assumed the name of the founder of the Mauryan Empire. The period of Gupta rule between 300 and 600 CE has been called the Golden Age of India for its advances in science and emphasis on classical Indian art and literature. Gupta rulers acquired much of the land previously held by the Mauryan Empire, and peace and trade flourished under their rule.
Sanskrit became the official court language, and the dramatist and poet Kalidasa wrote celebrated Sanskrit plays and poems under the presumed patronage of Chandragupta II. The Kama Sutra, a treatise on romantic love, is also dated to the Gupta era. In 499 CE, the mathematician Aryabhata published his landmark treatise on Indian astronomy and mathematics, Aryabhatiya, which described the earth as a sphere moving around the sun.
Detailed gold coins featuring portraits of the Gupta kings stand out as unique art pieces from this period and celebrate their accomplishments. Chandragupta's son Samudragupta (r. 350 to 375 CE) further expanded the empire, and a detailed account of his exploits was inscribed on an Ashokan pillar in Allahabad toward the end of his reign. Unlike the Mauryan Empire's centralized bureaucracy, the Gupta Empire allowed defeated rulers to retain their kingdoms in return for a service, such as tribute or military assistance. Samudragupta's son Chandragupta II (r. 375–415 CE) waged a long campaign against the Shaka Satraps in western India, which gave the Guptas access to Gujarat's ports, in northwest India, and international maritime trade. Kumaragupta (r. 415–454 CE) and Skandagupta (r. c. 454–467 CE), Chandragupta II's son and grandson respectively, defended against attacks from the Central Asian Huna tribe (a branch of the Huns) that greatly weakened the empire. By 550 CE, the original Gupta line had no successor and the empire disintegrated into smaller kingdoms with independent rulers.
- Why did the Ganges River become such an important part of Hinduism? How do Hindus show their reverence for the Ganges River?
- The word Karma is often used in American popular culture. What are its Hindu origins? Is the adoption of religious concepts in a secular context disrespectful towards the original religion?
- How are Hinduism and the caste system connected? While India outlawed the caste system at independence, why do problems persist?